I’m Sharon Kwok, a Eurasian American born in Hong Kong but growing up in both places. Consequently I’m in a position to appreciate both cultures. Until recent years, every banquet I attended seemed to include shark fin soup. Although the exact origin of this ostentatious dish is shrouded in mystery, we do know it had to come from China’s southern coastal regions, and it was never a favourite of the Northern Chinese. Therefore l doubt the truthfulness of claims that it was a fancy dish created for the Emperor; perhaps it was a fancy marketing ploy, but we’ll never know for sure. I’ve heard a version of shark fin soup’s origin being simply the fishermen’s frugal use of their catch. In bygone days, any obviously useful parts would either be sold fresh or salted to survive a trip to inland China. Thus, they figured out a way to make the fins edible, then palatable via the tasty ingredients used in the broth because the fins are virtually tasteless but for their fishiness.
Over the past several years, concerned parties have noticed a dramatic decline in sharks. So while businesses who deal in shark fins try to catch as much as possible while they’re still around, conservation groups are doing their best to preserve the species. In a bold move, on June 30th 2010, Hawaii started an avalanche of legal opposition to this Chinese dish; very appropriate seeing as their native population respect not only sharks but also their Shark-God ‘Kamoho’. In 2011, I was involved with lobbying for AB 376, California’s ban on the trade in shark fins. This bill was met with serious and well funded opposition due to the size of the older Chinese community in California, many of whom have business interests in the restaurant or dried seafood trade (a trade which often stretched to Asia due to much of the fins from southern American seas funnelling through California). Governor Jerry Brown signed AB376 in Oct 2011 and even after several legal attempts to overthrow it, it holds fast. This movement went swiftly to other states and even countries but the most opposition is in Asia. Living in Hong Kong, I’m at ground Zero of the trade. Fellow advocates and l try to affect change wherever and however we can, from convincing hotels to opt for ‘fin-free’ menus to pressurising airlines to stop carrying them. We also raise awareness via education in schools or raise public awareness through media. As a whole, we are thrilled to see results and sometimes, big changes such as the latest big coupe in Asia which saw Bruni’s Sultan effecting a national ban of all catch-and-landing of sharks this June.
The reason for all the fuss isn’t merely humane issues although that should be a strong enough one because most fins come from ‘finning’ rather than as a by-product of fishing. Finning is when sharks are caught only for their fins and their bodies are thrown back into the ocean to die a torturous death. This happens because there are insufficient regulations. Fisheries that target fins send their massive boats out to collect as much high yielding goods as possible, and while a pound of perfectly edible shark meat might sell for a few U.S. dollars, a pound of premium fin could sell for a few hundred. Since many large shark species take decades to reach sexual maturity and bear but a few young infrequently, these apex predators do not multiply quickly enough to cope with the insatiable demand…and because dried fins can be kept indefinitely, fisheries will literally take all they can for the unsustainable trade.
Perhaps a more important reason for putting a stop to this is the preservation of our oceans as we know it. Sharks have been here since pre-Jurassic times and they are a vital link that maintain the biodiversity of our marine ecology. We know that they’ve never come under the level of predation they’re currently suffering and their numbers are in obvious decline, but we don’t know for sure what their disappearance will mean to us. However, do we want to risk it? Dare we? Our oceans cover well over three quarters of the Earth’s surface. It helps maintain our climate as well as providing us with water and much of our oxygen. We are custodians of our resources so that future generations may enjoy them so at this time, one of the most responsible things to do is to say ‘NO’ to shark fin soup.